Must Reads: A 'Red Era' museum, Obama and mothers of the missing


From attacks in Afghanistan to the missing in Mexico, here are five stories you shouldn't miss from the past week in global news:

China museum builder lets history speak

Obama faces new Mideast challenges in his second term

As 'insider attacks' grow, so does U.S.-Afghanistan divide

Mothers from Central America search for missing kin in Mexico

Britain's crackdown on Web comments sparks free-speech debate

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Marta Elena Perez of from Nicaragua attends Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City on Oct. 28, 2012, with a photograph of her daughter, Karla Patricia Perez, who went missing in 2005. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press

Like 'wolves,' merciless gangs prey on migrants in Mexico

Matamoros don bartletti

MEXICO CITY -- Along Mexico's southern border region with Guatemala, ruthless criminals hunt for migrants from Central America like a "pack of wolves." Migrants victimized by gangs often end up in mass graves, while their survivors to the north or south anxiously await their arrival, or at least an identification of their dead.

On the other side of the country, on Mexico's northern border with Texas, deportees ejected across the border from the United States become automatic targets for gangs who often kidnap, torture and kill them.

"They are like the wolves and we're the sheep," said one man deported from Huntington Beach.

Two articles this week in The Times highlight the horrific realities in Mexico for the migrants who pass through the country on their way to the United States, as well as for those who are deported from there.

In the southern city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala in the state of Chiapas, Times Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson meets Argentine forensic experts as they work to identify remains found in a mass grave. The dead are presumably migrants from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, but who will ever fully know?

"Not knowing is the worst," one investigator said. "I've seen it across countries and cultures."

Mexico's government has estimated that 10,000 migrants remain unaccounted for on their journey across the country. The story notes that more young women are attempting the crossing into Mexico over the last year, and then become targets for sexual assault.

Read the entire story here.

In the northern border city of Matamoros, in Tamaulipas state, Times U.S.-Mexico border correspondent Richard Marosi meets a group of illegal immigrants recently deported to Mexico in the city across from Brownsville, Texas.

The migrants are repatriated in a controversial U.S. program that seeks to reduce the chances that they will try to cross again by sending them back into an unfamiliar region. As World Now reported a year ago, the practice puts them squarely in harm's way, with often fatal results.

Upon crossing back into Mexico, authorities warn them: "They will try to get phone numbers of your relatives in the U.S. for ransoms."

The warning offers little protection; migrants are promptly targeted by gangs. They are snatched up and robbed, extorted or killed. Some are forcibly recruited into the gangs.

"Deporting people here is like sending them into a trap … to be hunted down," a priest in Matamoros said.

Marosi relates how he is approached by a suspected gang member while reporting his story. The man tells the journalist that migrants have "nothing to fear" and that he is there to "protect" them.

Read the entire story here.


U.S. steps up deportation efforts for criminal immigrants

Does U.S. deportation program put migrants in harm's way?

Mexico says leader in kidnapping, killing of 72 migrants arrested

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Deportees carry personal items in boxes provided by U.S. authorities and file across the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico. They will soon be warned by Grupo Beta, the Mexican migrant safety force, about dangers they are about to face. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

U.S. looks to Belize for alleged ties to Sinaloa drug cartel

MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government’s effort to dismantle Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is a war with multiple fronts. The latest is the tiny tourist jewel of Belize.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced it was freezing the assets of three Belize residents alleged to be drug traffickers and “key associates” of the Mexican drug trafficking group. The Treasury Department has also prohibited U.S. citizens from doing business with the suspects or their companies.

The focus on Belize — a polyglot, 327,000-resident wedge of the Yucatan just south of Cancun — is the latest evidence of the overwhelming influence of the south-to-north movement of drugs through Central America.

The U.S. government has estimated that up to 90% of the 700 metric tons of cocaine headed from South America to the U.S. wends its way through Central America, and every nation in the region is on the U.S. list of “major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries.”

Belize, along with El Salvador, was added to that U.S. “blacklist” of 22 nations in September in a presidential memorandum that noted numerous recent drug and weapons seizures on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Belize border, as well as the presence of Mexican cartels including the Zeta gang, the ruthless rival to the Sinaloa cartel.

The three suspects targeted Tuesday are John Zabaneh, described by U.S. officials as a “critical figure” with ties to Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers; his nephew Dion Zabaneh, and a “close associate” named Daniel Moreno.

The Treasury Department also designated as off-limits a number of companies either owned or controlled by Moreno or John Zabaneh, including a building contractor, a resort and marina company, a pharmaceutical firm, a supermarket company, and a banana farm called Mayan King Ltd.

The bigger target, however, is the Sinaloa cartel, and its billionaire fugitive capo, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. Treasury officials say the Belizeans are associates of Guzman and other members of the cartel, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico and perhaps the most powerful narcotics ring in the world.

“John Zabaneh’s drug trafficking activities and his organization’s ties to Colombian sources of supply and Mexican buyers make him a critical figure in the narcotics trade,” Adam J. Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. “By designating Zabaneh, OFAC is disrupting those activities and continuing its efforts, alongside those of our law enforcement partners, to expose operatives of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, including their businesses.”

The Treasury Department has the ability to “designate” foreign businesspeople with suspected drug ties under the Kingpin Act, which was signed in to law by President Clinton in 1999. Since then, U.S. officials have designated more than 1,100 businesses and individuals linked to 97 drug kingpins, according to government figures.


Iran on diplomatic blitz to free hostages in Syria

Russia suffers another embarrassing failure in space

Plastic pellets blanket Hong Kong beaches after typhoon

-- Richard Fausset


At least 44 killed in Mexican prison riot

Prisonriot2 REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Dozens of people were killed in a riot inside a Mexican prison Sunday, the latest lethal incident in Latin America's overcrowded, poorly maintained jails (link in Spanish).

By early afternoon, the number of dead at the prison outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey had climbed to 44 and might yet rise, officials said (link in Spanish). Public security authorities in Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located, said inmates rioted in one cellblock about 2 a.m. and the violence spread to a second block.

Initial reports blamed the violence on efforts to transfer some inmates to another facility elsewhere in the country. There were conflicting reports about whether guards were taken hostage and if fires broke out in some of the cells. 

Jorge Domene, the state's public security spokesman, said authorities had regained control of the institution. He said most of the prisoners were incarcerated on drug-trafficking charges and related crimes.

All the dead were killed by knives, other sharp instruments, clubs or stones, Domene said.

Last week, more than 350 people were killed in an overcrowded prison in Comayagua, Honduras; it was the deadliest prison fire anywhere in modern history and underscored deteriorating conditions in jails  throughout Latin America.

Mexico's raging drug war, which long ago pushed violence deep into Central America, is helping to fill prisons in many cities at more than twice the capacity.

In Sunday's incident, the prison at a town called Apodaca, about 20 miles from Monterrey, was reportedly built to hold 1,500 inmates but had a population of 3,000.


Mexico to U.S.: 'No more weapons!'

Honduras report bolsters criticism of prison system

Immigration, deportation -- and no right to return?

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Relatives of inmates at a prison near the northern Mexico city of Monterrey attempt to break through a security fence in a desperate attempt to get information about rioting that killed several dozen inmates Sunday. Credit: Julio Cesar Aguilar / AFP/Getty Images

Website helps immigrants compare fees to send money home

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR—Immigrants from Central America and the Dominican Republic can go online to compare the cost of sending money from the United States to relatives back home. is a new service that shows how much different transfer services cost in five remittance-sending hubs in the United States: California, Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. Fees are calculated based on transfer amounts of $200 and $500.

The main sponsor of the initiative is the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies, a grouping of regional banks, along with support from the World Bank and Multilalateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, or IDB.

"This initiative will help the Hispanic community to better understand the costs and options available before deciding how and with whom to send the money," Paloma Monroy, a remittance specialist from the center, said in a statement this week. She said the tool "will create more transparency in this market, contributing to reduced costs."

Continue reading »

Another military official replaces civilian in El Salvador

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, has named a newly retired military man to head the National Civilian Police, stoking protests from opponents who say such an appointment violates the spirit of peace accords that ended the nation’s civil war.

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, has named a newly retired military man to head the National Civilian Police, stoking protests from opponents who say such an appointment violates the spirit of peace accords that ended the nation's civil war 20 years ago this month.

The naming of Gen. Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera, who retired from the army last week, follows a similar decision by Funes to name a former military officer as minister of justice and public security, a position that also had been held by a civilian (link in Spanish).

Funes said his new police director has the right credentials to confront a spiraling wave of violence engulfing the nation, fueled by the twin forces of drug traffickers and deeply entrenched street gangs.

"Mr. Salinas Rivera has had an outstanding role within the government's security, shown a great professionalism, and has a profound knowledge of the problems related to delinquency," Funes said.

Funes was elected president as the candidate of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political faction made up of former guerrillas.

Continue reading »

Controversy rages over military man as Salvadoran security minister


REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- It's been nearly 20 years since peace accords ended the civil war in El Salvador, but the decision of President Mauricio Funes to put a military man in the sensitive post of security and justice minister has revived raw emotions and dark memories.

El Salvador is reeling from the deadliest violence since the war, most of it blamed on gangs and drug traffickers. The tiny country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and Funes is under mounting pressure to rein in crime and lawlessness. This week he named retired army Gen. David Munguia Payes to the security post, the first time since the 1980-92 war that it has been occupied by someone from the military.

"I have asked him for concrete results in the fight against crime," Funes said as Munguia was sworn in, pointedly dressed in a business suit (link in Spanish).

A coalition of violence-prevention groups, in a news conference Wednesday, condemned the appointment as a sign of a "gradual, dangerous return" to the heavy-handed repression of the past. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said the decision violated the spirit of the hard-fought, internationally brokered peace accords, which sought to distance the military from civilian government.  

The naming of Munguia will also further drive a wedge between Funes and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla group that became a leftist political party and carried Funes to the presidency as its candidate in 2009 (link in Spanish). FMLN officials were highly critical of the move.  

Munguia replaces Manuel Melgar, who resigned this month. Melgar was a former guerrilla commander, and U.S. officials had essentially blackballed him, refusing to deal with him because of his possible role in the killing of four U.S. Marines in San Salvador during the war. That has led to speculation  that Washington might have pressured Funes to remove Melgar (link in Spanish).

And there was also rebellion from the top leadership of the National Civilian Police, a postwar creation of a civilian law enforcement body that included both former guerrillas and former soldiers. Today, most of the top officers are former guerrillas, and on Wednesday they were threatening to quit over Munguia's appointment.


Salvadoran group dogged in search for children missing years ago in civil war

El Salvador becomes drug traffickers' 'little pathway'

Gangs find fresh turf in Salvador

-- Alex Renderos

Photo: The Salvadoran military is shown during ceremonies marking the anniversary of national independence in September. Credit: Roberto Escobar / EPA.




Floods kill scores in El Salvador, other parts of Central America



REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- Heavy rains across Central America have swollen rivers, flooded towns and farmland and killed nearly 100 people. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate and seek shelter, and the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have declared national disasters.

Hardest hit was El Salvador (link in Spanish), where authorities said more rain fell in the last eight days than during the devastating 1998 Hurricane Mitch. The Lempa River washed over its banks and flooded more than 18,000 homes.

"It is a rain unprecedented in the history of El Salvador," Environmental Minister Herman Rosa Chavez said.

An estimated $2 million in Salvadoran coffee crops and production were also lost, La Prensa Grafica reported (link in Spanish).

Angel Arnaiz Quintana, a priest living in the badly flooded Usulutan region, said damage was extensive, hundreds of people in his community were stranded without food, and disease was spreading. "This was a rush of water that no one could stop," he told The Times by telephone. "Almost a tsunami."

International aid from the U.S., Mexico, Europe and elsewhere has already been pledged.


Thailand's worst flooding in decades threatens Bangkok

Puyehue Volcano erupts in Chile

Meteor shower alert: 2011 Orionids are on their way

-- Alex Renderos

Photo: A couple outside their flooded home on Oct. 17, 2011, in Marcovia, Honduras. Credit: Reuters





Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tours Latin America

Mahmoud Abbas
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was touring Latin America this week, his second visit to the distant region in less than a year as part of a worldwide lobbying effort to gain recognition for a Palestinian state.

Abbas met officials in the Colombian capital of Bogotaon Monday, a day after announcing with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador plans to establish diplomatic ties there. Until recently, El Salvador was one of Israel’s closest allies in Latin America.

“We are very interested in developing our relations with all the countries of the American continent,” Abbas said in San Salvador, according to a Spanish translation of his remarks.

The Palestinians began drumming up support in Latin America last year as part of a strategy to create momentum for their eventual U.N. bid for statehood. In response, major countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile formally recognized a sovereign, independent Palestinian state, months before the issue dominated this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.

At the meetings in New York last month, Abbas filed an official request for “Palestine” to be recognized as a U.N. member nation. The 15-member Security Council is divided over whether to elevate the Palestinians to full membership, however, and lengthy deliberations are likely before any vote is scheduled.


Israelis and Palestinians embrace only parts of peace initiative

U.S.: Republican plan would cut aid to Palestinians

Mahmoud Abbas' historic U.N. address swells Palestinian pride

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 10, 2011. Credit: John Vizcaino / Reuters


Court orders El Salvador to investigate children's disappearances

Enma Orellana
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Human rights advocates are hailing an international court decision ordering the government of El Salvador to fully investigate the cases of hundreds of children who disappeared during the nation’s civil war three decades ago.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San Jose, Costa Rica, found rights violations in the cases of six youngsters who vanished after being taken away by soldiers in 1981 and 1982.

One of the six children, Gregoria Contreras, 4 years old when she disappeared, was reunited with her family many years later after being tracked down by a Salvadoran group, the Assn. for the Search for Missing Children, also known as Pro-Busqueda. The group’s enduring search for children who went missing during the conflict was chronicled earlier this year by The Times here.

In its ruling, issued to the parties late last week, the court found what it called a “systematic pattern of forced disappearances of children” by army personnel battling leftist rebels. Many of the children, seized during raids, were placed into the lucrative international adoption market and raised abroad. Since 1994, Pro Busqueda has received reports of more than 800 children who vanished during the war. The group has located nearly half of them.

“The court recognizes the truth that was for years denied to relatives of the hundreds of [missing] children,” Pro-Busqueda’s director, Ester Alvarenga, said in a statement.

Salvadoran military authorities impeded investigations into the cases for many years. The leftist government of President Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009, has promised to investigate cases, but rights advocates say it has done little because of a lack of funds. Moreover, they say, few cases are likely to be solved unless the military is ordered to open files from the wartime period.

“One of the main difficulties in determining what happened to the disappeared children is obstruction by military forces when authorities charged with the investigation try to get information,” said Gisela De Leon, a lawyer for the Center for Justice and International Law who argued the case on behalf of the children. “The state will have to adopt measures to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

The case before the inter-American tribunal involved three sets of children who disappeared separately during the early 1980s.


El Salvador becomes drug traffickers' 'little pathway'

Cultural Exchange: The play's the thing in El Salvador

Rene Emilio Ponce dies at 64; Salvadoran general blamed for killing of six priests during civil war in 1989

-- Ken Ellingwood

Photo: Enma Orellana holds out hope she might one day find her daughter, who was 4 when seized by soldiers during El Salvador's civil war in 1982. Credit: Alex Renderos


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